A food justice strategy for Northwest London

Ryan Hack reports on the Brent Right to Food campaign

The United Kingdom is witnessing a food poverty crisis as a result of political decisions and systemic failures made over the last four decades. A third of households in Brent live below the current poverty line, resulting in a lack of access to fresh, healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food.

The Brent Right to Food campaign seeks to make Brent a ‘Right to Food’ Borough, with its own food justice strategy and corresponding policies and institutions aimed at redressing these structural food inequalities in NW London.

The focus of this local campaign is to collaborate with community kitchens and gardens, mutual aid groups, trade unions, advocacy groups, and any other key participants who are interested in improving our dysfunctional food system.

I decided to get involved in the Brent Right to Food campaign because the impact of austerity on social housing and food banks has deeply shaped my life. After witnessing my father begin to use food banks last year, I became a volunteer at the very same food bank that helped to feed him in my local community.

As a former student at Preston Park Primary School and Claremont High School who received free school meals, I know personally how the issue of food insecurity for children has been alive in our Borough for decades. Before electronic fingerprinting became the contemporary method to de-marginalize us from the lunch queue, I remember having to wait for my brown paper bag before school trips or having to wait separately for my lunch tickets. I raise this issue because so many children in this Borough have a deep story of struggle and perseverance over hardship, particularly the 10,000 children in Brent who get free school meals today.

The pandemic has brought to light the difficulties many Brent families have in accessing affordable, healthy foods. Those issues, which are entrenched in austerity, predate the pandemic, and are expected to last long beyond it. Principally, the government’s decision to end the ban on evictions on 31st May and the furlough scheme at the end of September 2021 will disproportionately impact the 23,500 residents in Brent Central constituency and the 20,400 people in Brent North who had to apply to the government’s furlough scheme.

The Member of Parliament for Liverpool West Derby Ian Byrne, who gave an impassioned speech to Brent Central Labour Party, was responsible for inspiring a small group of members to join together to design the first steps of the Brent Right to Food campaign.  The convening group agreed that legislative action was the first step of the campaign, with the further aim of declaring Brent a ‘Right to Food’ Borough with its own food strategy.

As a result, the Brent Central Labour Party passed a composite motion on the ‘Right to Food’ and called upon our elected representatives to support the campaign. The motion has been sent to Cllr. Muhammed Butt as Council Leader, requesting a submission to the Henry Dimbleby review of a National Food Strategy. The purpose of the review is to set out a vision for the kind of food system we should be building for the future and a plan for how to achieve that vision.

In her article in the Big Issue dedicated to the ‘Right to Food,’ Hannah Westwater stated that 1.7 million children in the United Kingdom are experiencing food insecurity, which means that many families are forced to make difficult day-to-day decisions such as giving up healthy food to afford school uniforms for their children. This grassroots campaign is driven by a strong desire to extend free school meals throughout the year by engaging with a diverse range of community groups to build on the work started during the pandemic to ensure that all hungry children have access to fresh, healthy, and culturally appropriate food.

We also want to make connections between struggles across the food chain. Food workers were disproportionately affected by Covid-19 because of the low pay, zero-hour shiftwork dominant in the sector, and many have themselves become dependent on food banks. Cheap food comes at a price, and the tab is picked up by workers and the planet.

This campaign attempts to bring together organisers from the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union and the GMB Union to sketch out a strategy to fight for workers’ rights. Hence, Unite the Union has backed this effort, which wants to modify legislation to force the government to end the inhumane five-week wait for Universal Credit recipients.

Food insecurity is intimately linked to a broader housing issue. In Brent, more than 22% of children live in poverty, which rises to a staggering 43% when housing costs are factored in. The Brent Right to Food campaign focuses on a fundamental strategy for relieving the strain on families who are struggling to pay rising rent and energy bills.

City Hall’s research reveals that in Brent, the average monthly rent rose from £1,200 to £1,500 over an eight-year period between 2012 and 2020. Expensive rents in the private sector have directly caused many low-income households to spend 40% of their monthly income on housing costs.

The importance of urban agriculture at a time of transformation in Brent is integral to the future of Brent’s food strategy to alleviate food and fuel insecurity. Food gardens enable people in the community to grow healthy food together in a spirit of social solidarity. Initiatives such as the Harlesden Town Garden grow nutritious food for their local Mutual Aid group that directly helps residents experiencing food and fuel insecurity. Ensuring that everyone has access to healthy food is inextricably linked to fixing our society’s housing crisis.

The Brent Right to Food campaign will launch on 10th July at the pioneering Granville Community Kitchen in South Kilburn, including a discussion led by its co-founder Dee Woods, local emergency support organisation Sufra NW, and the National President of the BFAWU, Ian Hodson.

We must address this structural inequality now, before a new generation of Brent residents becomes trapped in a broken food system that is being exacerbated by an ecological and housing crisis. We must act now to end food insecurity in society, which begins with developing a food strategy that incorporates the ideas and energy of the Brent community.

Ryan Hack is a member of Brent Central Labour Party who is active in the Right to Food campaign.

Main image: Food Bank. Source:  geograph.org.uk. Author: Betty Longbottom, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Inset image: Ryan Hack, at Brent Food Bank in Church-End in February 2021.

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